Built into a hill, the grandparents’ house
was cool and damp like the heart of a cave,
at dawn I’d take my chilly feet
to Grandma under flannelette
and eiderdown of cherry silk.
Her porridge was served with sugar and cream
fresh from the farm at the end of the road.
One summer day we took billy-cans
to where a patch of blackberries grew
around the sides of a dam gone dry:
it was deep and pebbled, pitted, rough
but the clustered berries were juicy and sweet.
We ate and plucked, staining our hands
until I strained for a clump too high.
“Look,” I urged, “the best, by far.”
Dangling above my skinny arm,
the purple bunches shone in the sun.
As Grandma stretched for the tempting fruit
she lost her footing and tumbled down
over and over down the dam wall
to its stony floor; she lay in a heap,
suddenly small, not moving at all.
“Oh, God, is she dead? Oh, please not, God,”
I prayed and cried on the dam’s high side.
She got to her feet and picked up her hat.
“I’m alive,” she said, “don’t frizzle your fat.
Never a word to your Grandfather, mind.”
Her hair was messed, there was blood on her face.
She began the climb, up out of the dam,
I peered from the edge, biting my nails
as, grunting, she clambered over the rim.
Walking slowly home, I held her hand.
The day turned dark with a gully wind
and guilt for my crime burnt deeply in—
our blackberries seemed like proof of sin:
because of greed I had almost killed.
No one was told, as far as I know.
At Easter Grandpa asked my dad
not to send me any more.
They’d started to feel their age, he said.
I see her brown face whenever I taste
a bowl of blackberries, sugar and cream.
These summer nights I seem to hear
my father play for me
singing along melodiously.
His outstretched arms are pale,
a tide of thinning hair recedes …
He’s bored with family life,
claims it fails to meet his needs
in a home which has become
more like a net in which he’s caught,
the music a last resort.
If only he were here, my dad,
not just the thought of him
playing an old familiar hymn
at dusk, on the old upright.
Our heavy crate of Sternberg piano
was hauled ashore from Berlin
about a hundred years ago.
Also upright, in stature at least,
he grew lax and even bolder
once given the cold shoulder.
A husband plays it now for me:
some jazz and Jelly Roll
then the blues, a bit of soul,
that thing from Acker Bilk
I love, “Stranger on the Shore”:
it always melts my thighs
until I sigh, Again! Encore!
He has the hands. Undone,
and rising from my mother’s chair,
I bend to kiss his hair.